Friday, December 7, 2012

Michelangelo Pistoletto: From One to Many, 1956-74

In the fall of 2010, the Philadelphia Museum of Art presented a major exhibition devoted to the work of Michelangelo Pistoletto (b. 1933) in the Dorrance Galleries for Special Exhibitions. Widely recognized as a key figure in the development of Italian art in the 1950s and 1960s and a founding member of the Arte Povera movement, Pistoletto has also gained increasing recognition in this country as an important influence on a younger generation of artists involved with the participatory practices that have become increasingly prevalent in contemporary art during the past two decades.

Michelangelo Pistoletto, Mappamondo (Globe), 1966-68

The first major survey of works by Pistoletto in the United States in more than twenty years, this exhibition placed his art in the context of the cultural transformation of Western Europe that occurred after World War II and relate his work to developments in Italian and American art since the 1960s, including Pop Art, Minimalism, Arte Povera and Conceptual Art. Drawn from public and private collections in Europe and the United States, it included some 100 works, many of which have never been exhibited in this country.

Michelangelo Pistoletto: From One to Many, 1956-74 was organized by the Philadelphia Museum of Art in collaboration with the Museo nazionale delle arti del XXI secolo (MAXXI), Rome. In addition, Michelangelo Pistoletto: Cittadellarte, an interactive installation that explores the work of Pistoletto’s interdisciplinary center for art and culture located in Biella, Italy, was on view in the Museum’s Modern and Contemporary Art Galleries.

Taking Pistoletto’s first self-portraits as a point of departure, Michelangelo Pistoletto: From One to Many, 1956-74 examined the artist’s revelatory journey from his rigorous examination of self-representation in the mid-1950s through his engagement with creative collaborative actions during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Pistoletto’s extraordinary self-portraits of the 1950s, painted in Turin where he worked at the beginning of his career, demonstrate an incisive exploration of the tension between the individual human figure and the anonymous spectator.

In these works he began to use increasingly reflective surfaces, a direction that ultimately led to the production of the first of his Quadri specchianti (Mirror Paintings) in 1962. Pistoletto created his Quadri specchianti by attaching figures—which he had hand-painted on tissue paper—to the mirrored surfaces of polished stainless steel panels. By doing so, the artist incorporated the viewer’s reflected image, making this interactive and figurative relationship fundamental to the experience of his work. An extensive selection of Mirror Paintings dating from 1962 to 1974 will enable visitors to trace the evolution of the artist’s technique and to map the sociopolitical changes that occurred in Italy during that period, which are clearly identifiable in Pistoletto’s progressive choice of subject matter.

The exhibition also included sections devoted to Pistoletto’s Plexiglas works from 1964 that clearly prefigure Conceptualism, his Stracci (Rags) sculptures of the late-1960s and early-1970s that demonstrate his seminal contribution to the development of Arte Povera, and interactive documentation of the performance work that he produced with his Lo Zoo group from 1968 to 1970.

A centerpiece of the show was Pistoletto’s extraordinary Oggetti in meno (Minus Objects), a group of disparate sculptural objects that he created between 1965 and 1966. With the Minus Objects, Pistoletto tests and questions Minimalism’s emphasis on seriality and non-compositionality by creating works characterized by diversity and by drawing inspiration from fields as varied as artisanship, architecture, design, and popular culture. As with the rest of Pistoletto’s work, the connecting factor in his Minus Objects is a precise use of contingency, the artist’s knowledge and love of materials, and a passionate emphasis on singularity and difference.


In conjunction with the exhibition, the Philadelphia Museum of Art published an illustrated catalogue edited by Carlos Basualdo, with contributions by art historians Jean-Fran├žois Chevrier, Claire Gilman, Gabriele Guercio, and Angela Vettese, as well as the Museum’s Conservator of Paintings, Suzanne Penn. The catalogue will include plates for all works on view, pairing the Mirror Paintings with documentary photographs of the works. For the first time in a major catalogue, much of the source photography that Pistoletto commissioned, manipulated, and replicated for his Mirror Paintings will be published in an effort to shed light on the artist’s intricate creative process and relate it to his interest in stagecraft and the theater. The English-language catalogue, designed by Abbott Miller of Pentagram, is co-published by the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Yale University Press.

Related Exhibition:

Michelangelo Pistoletto: Cittadellarte, a related presentation in the Gisela and Dennis Alter Gallery (176), provided visitors with the opportunity to participate in a variety of activities connected to Pistoletto’s ongoing project titled Cittadellarte. Pistoletto founded Cittadellarte in Biella, Italy in 1998, and has developed the mission of this multifunctional foundation to place “art at the center of a responsible process of social transformation.” Cittadellarte—whose name implies both a fortified enclave and city of art—is organized around several offices dedicated to diverse fields of study, including Economics, Education, Politics, Ecology, and Communication. Working autonomously, each office advances programming related to Cittadellarte’s goals through thoughtful dialogue and societal engagement.

As is the case with From One to Many, this related project was developed in close dialogue with the artist.

A central element in the installation of Michelangelo Pistoletto: Cittadellarte at the Museum’s Alter Gallery were two large tables that have been fabricated in the shapes of the Caribbean and Mediterranean Seas, acting as both a physical setting for conversation and a metaphor for exchanges across cultures. To Pistoletto, the etymology of Mediterranean—middle from “medi” and land from “terra”—articulates a concept of space that exists between lands, and therefore between people, defining in turn a locus for communication and exchange.